Local strife meets great power rivalry in the countries which used to make up Yugoslavia.
I n mid-January, a train painted in Serbian colours, decked out in Serbian Orthodox icons and emblazoned with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbian” in 21 languages trundled towards the border with Kosovo. Its destination was Mitrovica, a run-down town whose historic mines were saved from bankruptcy last year, and whose ethnic divisions occasionally spill over into violence.
The train ground to a halt well before the border after Kosovo deployed special forces to bar it from entering. Soon Tomislav Nikolić, Serbia’s president, decried the order as war-mongering and warned that the two countries were “on the brink of conflict”. His counterpart, Hashim Thaci, shot back that Belgrade was testing Vladimir Putin’s “Crimea model” in northern Kosovo.
The bluster subsided, but the episode was a dramatic reminder that instability lingers in the Balkans almost three decades after the dissolution of Yugoslavia unleashed a series of wars in which 140,000 people died and four million more were displaced. Local strife and jostling between global powers are shaking up an already unstable equilibrium - a familiar tale in the region that incubated World War I.
“There are tensions both within and between almost all West Balkan countries, as well as territorial disputes,” Dejan Anastasijevic, an investigative journalist famous for his coverage of the Yugoslav wars, told The World Weekly. “The main danger is not war, but that the region will be permanently stuck as Europe's neglected backyard, ridden by poverty, corruption and authoritarian rule.”
After years fighting in-house crises, the EU is sitting up and taking notice. Johannes Hahn, the commissioner in charge of neighbourhood relations, recently compared the West Balkans to a “pan full of oil. A match is enough - and everything goes up in flames.” At a summit in Brussels last week, national leaders discussed the “fragile situation” in the region, fretted about Russian meddling and stressed that countries there have a future inside the EU.
For some observers this is too little, too late. “The situation is serious but the instability is long-term rather than recent,” says Jasmin Mujanović, author of a forthcoming book about Balkan democracy. “This recent alarm over deteriorating political norms in the former Yugoslavia is better understood in the context of at least a decade of such trends.”
Macedonia, not Kosovo, is the immediate cause for concern. Elections were held in December as part of an EU-brokered deal designed to end months of unrest dubbed the ‘Colourful Revolution’, but things have not gone according to plan. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s centre-right VMRO party narrowly defeated the opposition Social Democrats, but his coalition talks with an Albanian party, acting as kingmaker, broke down. This month President Gjorge Ivanov, also of VMRO, refused to give the Social Democrats a shot at forming a government, sparking a constitutional crisis.
His decision “has allowed certain elements in Macedonia to ‘ethnicise’ politics once more, fuelling inter-ethnic tensions between the Albanian minority and the ethnic Macedonian majority,” says Dijedon Imeri, an analyst at IHS Markit. Thousands of people have turned out to support the president, who claims that Albanian demands would “destroy” the country. Brussels, NATO and the US have all urged him to backtrack, putting them at odds with Russia, which is backing the government.
Macedonia is far from the only flashpoint. In Montenegro, a prosecutor has accused Moscow of conspiring to murder Prime Minister Milo Dukanović on the eve of an election last October in a desperate attempt to stop the country joining NATO - a claim the Kremlin has ridiculed. Serbia's bellicose rhetoric towards Kosovo poses a constant danger, though NATO-led troops stationed there serve as a reminder and deterrent.
In the long run, the main threat to peace lies in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In February 2016, Mr. Hahn and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, declared a “day of celebration” when the once war-torn nation filed for membership. A year on, that is a distant memory. The Republika Srpska - one of two largely autonomous regions established in the 1995 Dayton peace accords - is threatening to hold a referendum on secession, while the Bosniak member of the umbrella presidency riled his Serb and Croat colleagues by asking the International Court of Justice to revisit a genocide case against Serbia.
“The Dayton Agreement in Bosnia has cemented ethnic divisions, leaving ethnicity as the primary electoral tool of local political elites, especially as unemployment and poverty rates remain high,” says Mr. Imeri. “The danger… is that continued threats of secession in Republika Srpska might ultimately force [President] Milorad Dodik into a corner where he actually has to execute it.” Few observers think this would end in anything other than disaster.
Three threads connect these national crises. First, after 15 years waiting in the wings, countries in the West Balkans feel shunned and humiliated by the EU. What one expert describes as “benign neglect” gave way to lavish attention only when hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants tramped towards northern Europe in 2015. Croatia joined the club in 2013 and every country bar Kosovo has applied, but rising nationalism within the EU makes further expansion all but impossible. With that, the main incentive to reform has vanished.
“The existential crisis of the EU, which effectively prompted European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to close the doors for aspiring members until at least 2019, has left many disillusioned about a prosperous future in the Union,” says Mr. Imeri. “In many countries, the benefits of integration compared to the concessions also seem very unbalanced.”
Russia has stepped into the breach, stirring up ethnic and religious divisions to undermine the EU and NATO. Mr. Dodik’s most powerful international supporter is Vladimir Putin, whom he visited in Moscow just before holding an illegal referendum on whether to reinstate a contentious national holiday last autumn. European officials also worry about the role of Turkey’s Islamist government.
Above all, though, the region is beset by political and economic stagnation. “The crisis in the Balkans is one of democracy and governance,” says Dr. Mujanović. “These are all still largely illiberal regimes whose elites feed off and depend on sectarianism and conflict to remain in power.”
Mr. Anastasijevic agrees: “A mixture of nationalism, populism, corruption and autocratic tendencies, coupled with low or non-existent economic growth, is causing chronic instability."